Part 2 - Pre-Socratics and Socrates

The Pre-Socratics and Socrates

The Pre-Socratics.

Philosophy is the patrimony of the whole world, all peoples have been involved in formulating philosophical views. Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are oriental religions supported by strong philosophical examination of reality and of the meaning of human existence; equally many great ancient nations in Africa – the Ashante and the Yoruba, for example – developed high forms of civilization based on philosophical and religious interpretation of the world. What is usually called “Western Philosophy” originated in Greek colonies in what is today Turkey, then found an extraordinarily fertile ground in Athens, with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Hellenistic and Roman civilizations continued the work of the early Greek philosophers and added names of other great philosophers, like Epicurus, Cicero, Plotinus, Marcus Aurelius, until it was adopted by Christian thinkers like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Kant, Rosmini, and modern day philosophers world wide. But whereas there are many races and people in the world, human rationality and logical reasoning are very much the same everywhere. Geometry and mathematics, for example, are accepted by any rational person, no matter what his place of origin, or his race. The adjective “western” should not muddle our ideas about the philosophy we are studying. Philosophy is a universal science and its achievements are the patrimony of the whole human race.

The early Greek philosophers, or Pre-Socratics, looked at the world with child-like wonder and tried to understand the world “scientifically”: “What is the fundamental stuff that makes up everything? What is the original substance out of which all others are formed?” The “everything” includes gods and human beings as well as stones, trees, animals, etc. They did not make any distinction between the spiritual and the material: materialism was their perspective and their answer.  Here are some of their conclusions:

What is the original stuff that makes up everything?

Thales: Water!
Anaximander: Primal substance, unspecified, out of which all other substances derive!
Anaximenes: Air! (Soul is air, fire is air, water is air, etc.)
Heraclitus: Fire! (The soul is a mixture of fire –noble- and water –ignoble; everything is in perpetual motion, like the fire, “Panta rei” (everything is in a constant flux)
Empedocles: Earth, Air, Fire, Water! (He died by jumping into the fire of the volcano Etna!).
Democritus: Atoms! Everything is composed of indivisible atoms, combining in accordance to physical laws, to make up the infinite variety of things.


The early Greek philosophers are referred to as the “Pre-Socratics”. They lived before Socrates. Socrates rebelled consciously against these philosophers and changed the nature of philosophy as it had been conducted up to that point.

Socrates (c.470-399BC) was born and lived in Athens. Most of what we know about him comes from the writings of his brilliant pupil Plato (c.428-c.348BC) who was the first Greek philosopher to leave writings of his own. Plato’s writings are among the most important ever written and take the form of dialogues, usually with Socrates as the main character and philosopher. Socrates’ driving force was truth. How much the Socrates we have in the dialogues is an invention of Plato is an open question. Socrates’ questions were ethical and not scientific. He did not speculate about the nature of the world, but about how human beings should live. In the Apology he states, “God orders me to fulfil the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men”; and again, “I have nothing to do with physical speculations”.

Early platonic dialogues – reckoned by scholars to be the closest to Socrates’ actual teaching – are concerned with definitions of ethical terms, temperance, moderation, friendship, courage. Socrates is presented by Plato as the archetypal wise man. He is sharp and humorous. Socrates himself, however, constantly states that he is wiser than others only because he knows that he knows nothing. What is more important for him is the search for truth. Seeking, rather than finding, is the mark of the true philosopher, and Socrates’ view has influenced philosophy throughout the ages.

This is what Bertrand Russell writes about philosophy:

“Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conceptions of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination, and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good” (Problems of Philosophy).

There is much in this passage with which Rosmini would have agreed; but whereas Russell ends up with scepticism, Rosmini’s fundamental contribution to philosophy is the certainty that truth is so close to us that it constitutes the form of our intelligence; we are made for the truth, and we can discover it.
Socrates also believed that if a person knew the right thing, then he would do it. The main purpose of philosophy is to encourage right conduct, and this was to be achieved by convincing people that they should be good, and also by showing them the way to be good. He did not regard knowledge as separate from ethics, and he held that everyone wanted to be good and that any failure in virtue must, fundamentally, be due to ignorance. The truly wise would understand that their best interest was served by acting virtuously. Do you think that knowledge and goodness are so intimately connected?

In 399BC, after the restoration of democracy in Athens, Socrates was tried on a charge of disbelief in the gods and corrupting the young. He was condemned to death. The charge was, “Socrates is an evil-doer and a curious person, searching into things under the earth and above the heavens; and making the worse appear the better cause, and teaching all this to others”. The effect on Plato of his teacher’s death was profound and he includes Socrates’ death in several of his dialogues (The Apology gives Socrates’ defence at his trial, the Crito lists Socrates’ reasons for not trying to escape after he had been condemned, the Phoedo recounts Socrates’ last hours arguing for the immortality of the soul). Socrates took hemlock (a poison) and continued to talk with his friends gathered round him until the poison took effect. As he died, he was happy that in the next world he could go on asking questions, unable to be put to death again since he would now be immortal. 

For Rosmini, Socrates and Plato came very close to solving the most intricate problem in philosophy, the one that opens the way to a solution to all other problems, and opens the way to the truth, the problem of the origin of ideas. In the dialogue of the same name, The Meno, Socrates is asked by him, a sophist, to explain how one can search for things that he does not know, and how one can search for things that he does know: how can you search for what you do not know to exist, and how can you search for things which are under your eyes?

The word “search” does not appear to apply either to ignorance or to knowledge. In order to investigate, the mind needs something in between ignorance and knowledge, something which is known only in part, something not as dark as ignorance nor as bright as knowledge, but a mixture of the two. Meno is telling Socrates that if were true that Socrates did not know anything – as Socrates always claimed – then he would remain in his ignorance since the mind cannot search for that about which is in total darkness. Socrates acknowledges that this is a formidable problem, and comes up with a solution. If the mind searches for something it means that it already has in itself some traces of that something, it already possesses innately some notions which lay dormant, so to speak, which are there like “forgotten”. Socrates tested this view by calling to himself an unlearned slave, and by putting to him only questions he managed to have the young boy solve mathematical problems and produce solutions to geometrical theorems. Indeed he adopted successfully this famous method in order to have people discovering clearer and more precise ideas on many ethical and philosophical issues. There must be something innate in us which makes searching and discovering possible. Socrates’ claim is that we do not “learn”, we “remember”. We possess this knowledge from before we are born. We shall come back to this important point when we examine Plato’s views.

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